The state Education Department has rejected the Buffalo Public Schools’ plan to relaunch Bennett High School this fall as a new school focusing on science and technology. That leaves 135 incoming ninth-graders currently without a high school to attend in September.
In addition, the state is withholding, at least for now, approval of the district’s plans to convert Martin Luther King School 39 into the Medical Campus High School. That’s an embarrassing setback for the district, given that the White House recently awarded $3.9 million in grant money to the new school.
The two letters Deputy Commissioner Ken Slentz sent Wednesday heap criticism on the district’s Bennett and MLK transformation plans as being inadequate, poorly planned and lacking in details.
“Department staff determined that the plan submitted by BPS does not provide the necessary evidence of comprehensive planning and support for the phase-out and phase-in schools,” Slentz wrote.
Both schools had been targeted by the state for change or closure because of “chronic academic failure.”
The state directives require Buffalo to delay plans to relaunch Bennett High School until the fall of 2015. The state is also withholding approval of the Medical Campus High School transformation plan for MLK, leaving it in limbo until the district provides more information.
While current students at Bennett High School will be allowed to remain, no incoming freshmen will be permitted to enroll at Bennett until a new academic program is approved for the school building.
That means 135 current eighth graders who had already elected to attend Bennett must now scramble to enroll in a different high school.
Mark Frazier, the acting assistant superintendent of attendance and registration, said the district will work to begin enrolling these students in other schools next week.
“We will immediately begin working with families to review options, which would include programs that currently have available seats,” he said.
There are no high schools in good standing with the state that have any open seats to accommodate additional students. All of those schools, which have admissions requirements, were filled in February, Frazier said.
But there is adequate space for those students to be accommodated in other district high schools, several of which have similar programs to the ones Bennett has now, he said.
Although current Bennett students are unaffected, the state expressed concern that the district has presented no plan to support the needs of the remaining students as the school is phased out.
Taken together, the latest directives from the state further shred Superintendent Pamela Brown’s initial plans to open new schools and close/relaunch others by September.
Brown said the delay in relaunching a new program at Bennett may work out for the best. She pointed out that because other outside proposals for the transformation of Bennett High School fell through, the district had only a month to put together a new plan to relaunch the school.
“Certainly, we appreciate having more time,” she said.
The state listed eight criticisms of the plan submitted to transform Bennett High School into a new “Bennett STE@M Academy” (STE@M referring to science, technology, engineering, arts and math). The findings include:
• Lack of information and timeline about all the prep work, curriculum development, central office support and partnerships that must be in place for the program to successfully launch by September.
• Lack of any timeline or detailed description for how school leadership will be recruited. Although Brown has indicated that current Principal Terry Ross would remain, the state questioned this decision.
“No information has been provided on who will lead the phase-out school, which has been led by many principals in the last two years,” Slentz stated, “or why the principal from Bennett is most qualified to lead the Bennett STE@M Academy.”
• Lack of “coherent school focus” between the school’s stated science and technology mission and the district’s plan to house a mix of career programs at the school, including programs focused on teacher preparation, law enforcement and nursing.
• Lack of consultation with the district’s unions and district families in the development of the plan.
Slentz also pointed out that the Bennett relaunch plan contradicts various aspects of the district’s Public School Choice Corrective Action Plan, which gives families with children in low-performing schools the right to transfer their children into schools in good standing.
He directed the district to assign a staff person or hire an outside individual by May 30 whose “sole responsibilities” would be to recraft a school phase-in plan for Bennett that the state can approve.
The new plan for Bennett must be submitted by Sept. 1. If it is not approved, Slentz said, the school could be targeted for shutdown by next June.
Brown responded, “I certainly believe we will be able to develop a plan for the commissioner that will meet his qualifications by the September deadline.”
Regarding the MLK plan, which would transform the current elementary school into a medical careers oriented school for students in grades five through 12, the state raised many similar concerns regarding missing “critical information” as it did with the Bennett plan. In many cases, the wording was nearly identical.
As with the concerns raised about Bennett, Slentz questioned the ability of the district to develop a strong program ready to launch by September.
However, possibly in recognition of the fact that the White House announced the district was receiving $3.9 million from the Department of Labor to establish a new Medical Campus High School, the state did not outright deny the MLK relaunch plan.
Instead, the state demanded that the district provide a long list of additional information by the end of next week. That included answers to two additional pages of questions and a request for a copy of the approved federal grant application from the Department of Labor.
“Failure to do so will result in denial of the phase-out/phase-in plans for MLK and the petition for registration of a new school for Buffalo Medical Campus High School,” Slentz stated.
Brown said she spoke with Slentz more than a week ago and that her staff has already been busy trying to respond to all the concerns raised by the state.
“The deadline of April 25 we believe is reasonable,” she said. “We will be able to submit all of the clarifying information that is requested by that time. ... We will certainly put forth every effort to ensure that the information we submit by April 25 will be acceptable to the commissioner, and the plan will be approved.”
Although school officials have been talking about a new Medical Campus School since last year, the original plan was for a new school to be opened serving ninth- through 12th-graders. That was also the description included in the application for the Department of Labor grant that was due in January.
It was not until last month that the district switched gears and decided to convert the existing MLK school into a new STE@M Academy serving students in grades five to 12. That action would lead to the displacement of roughly 400 elementary children currently enrolled there.
A spokesman for the Department of Labor said his department is reviewing all grant awards to ensure that they comply with the award guidelines.
To view Deputy Commissioner Ken Slentz’s letters regarding Bennett and MLK, visit the School Zone blog at www.buffalonews.com/schoolzone. Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski contributed to this story.